Storm the Crossroads: How the Fracking ‘Revolution’ Gambles Our Already-Tenuous Future

flaring illustration

We idle at a crossroads. It’s a harried intersection, to be sure, at a twilight hour.

From one direction flow the rail cars of explosive oil, streams of latticed drilling rigs, water-sucking, chemical-spuming trucks, and the promise of mined Canadian oil sands snaking over the Ogallala – our nation’s largest freshwater aquifer – on its way to Houston refineries and the global market beyond.

From the south another force masses. Sometimes called a people’s movement, it is more than that. Famed biologist E.O. Wilson once compared the rise of environmental and anti-globalization activism to the earth’s immune response awakening.

Vandava Shiva
Image: Nitin Rai for Asiaweek

“Intellectually, we know the fossil fuels age is over,” environmental activist Vandava Shiva said in January, concluding a landmark Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal in Quito, Ecuador. “And yet those who can make quick money by mining the last reserves of gas or coal or oil … they’re making their last desperate attempt.”

The traffic from the west demands a trade. The tens of billions of gallons of (mostly potable) water already shot down holes across South Texas for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of the oil-bearing shales below is the least of our worries. Thanks to the invisible but ubiquitous streams of methane pouring into the air from this most recent example of the oil industry’s rush to the bottom of the barrel, the bonanza of jobs and royalty payments represents nothing less than the possibly irreparable rupturing of the earth’s life-support systems.

Those fighting for a habitable earth are mobilized by the warnings of climate scientists from across the planet. They tell us in report after report that the time is short for humanity to change course. The most recent prompt, a leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, states we have but a few years to radically reduce our greenhouse emissions before the atmosphere becomes so saturated with heat-trapping gases that we will no longer have the ability to solve our crisis with existing technology.

Greenhouse gases – mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide – have blanketed the earth reliably since before plant life first exploded in the seas, trapping the sun’s heat close to the earth and making the explosion of life possible. Throughout human history, these gases have existed at levels below 300 parts per million (ppm). But then people discovered how to turn coal and oil into energy and we’ve been unleashing their previously solidified stores of carbon into the air ever since. So much so that we’ve already locked in centuries of increased heatwaves, desertification, and drought.

Researchers like former NASA scientist James Hansen, who resigned his position last year to become a full-time climate activist, has suggested that for a climate favorable to human life we must not exceed 350 ppm CO2 equivalent. Thanks largely to petrochemical production, oil-dependent transportation, and industrial agriculture, we’ve pushed that number nearly to 400 ppm in recent years. The IPCC and others have suggested developed countries like the U.S. must rapidly cut their emissions, yet thanks largely to the virtual and literal explosions of extreme extraction made possible by fracking, the United States has become the world’s top producer not of low-carbon, clean energy sources like solar (Germany leads in installed solar, China manufactures the most), but oil.

So what are they celebrating in polished board rooms of Chesapeake, Pioneer, and Apache, when they read the self-congratulatory proclamation of a Texas Public Policy Foundation scholar who derides the streams of U.S. Presidents who “futilely pledged energy independence” only to see it delivered at last byenergy entrepreneurs” cracking deeply buried rock? What does “energy independence” even mean when what we rob from the earth is burning down our home?

Despite more than 20 years of promises by world governments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the world shattered an all-time record last year, belching an estimated 40 billion tons. The U.S. dumped nearly 6 billion metric tons, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Somewhere across the intersection, our future approaches: Seven degrees average additional heat? More? A sizzling tropical zone spreads north and south. Swathes of the earth are abandoned. Uninhabitable.)

Rather than dig into the story of the biggest crisis of our time, the media has largely chosen simpler stories. A recent survey by The Project for Improved Environmental Coverage analyzed 17 months of headlines from 46 news organizations and found that only 1.24 percent of the stories were about the environment (compared to 7.25 percent about crime and 3.91 about entertainment, on average).

The political right has dug in its heels, risking its own obsolescence in its denial of climate change.

“The possibility of an internationally binding treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions is viewed as a direct threat to sustained economic growth, the spread of free markets, the maintenance of national sovereignty, and the continued abolition of governmental regulations – key goals of conservatives,” university professors Aaron M. McCright and Riley E. Dunlap concluded in 2011 after studying a decade of polling data.

methane emissions
Screen grab of methane emission footage provided by Earthworks. See their report: “Reckless Endangerment in the Eagle Ford Shale.”

Science becomes one more casualty in the pursuit of pure ideology, resulting in “serious implications for long-term societal resilience.”

Before we understood what fracking was, those fighting dirty coal and dangerous nukes believed natural gas could be a lower-carbon “bridge” to solar and wind and energy storage breakthroughs. It’s a belief still held by President Obama, who pledged in his State of the Union this year to help usher in a new nationwide natural gas economy. Yet we now know that methane, the primary component of natural gas, is far more powerful greenhouse gas than we previously understood. In fact, the ghostly clouds recorded by the infrared cameras of activists fuming from pipelines, compressor stations, and tanks batteries are 72 times more potent at trapping heat as CO2 over a 20 year period (pdf).

Even for a growing number of financial managers, fracking doesn’t make sense. In a February letter to investors, Jeremy Grantham, chief investment strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo, a Boston-based asset management firm, warned his clients away from fossil fuels broadly and singled out fracking in particular. After ticking off its climate change hazards, the earthquakes the disposal of its sizable waste streams cause, and the inevitable triumph of renewable energy, Grantham concludes that, like the tar sands, fracking is just too labor and capital intensive, yielding “a relatively costly type of oil that you resort to only when the easy, cheap stuff is finished.”

Political progress may come from the collapse of the entrenched two-party system and the rise of the Latin@ vote. “The single ethnic group that cares about climate change are Latinos,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, tells me. “Gerrymandering has kept some of that at bay, but in terms of where they are on this issue: they care more about this than any racial or ethnic group in this country.”

The most recent poll on the subject, found 9 in 10 Latino voters surveyed want federal action on the dangers caused by climate change. “Of the issues we’ve polled, the only other national issue Latinos feel more intensely about is immigration reform,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions.

Meanwhile, expanding on a years-long trend, 45% of those responding to a January Gallup survey identified themselves as “Independents” rather than as Republicans (24%) or Democrats (29%). And political independents, it turns out, tend to side with progressives on the issue of climate change, Leiserowitz said.

Electoral strategies may prove futile, however, playing into the incrementalist approach preferred by industry interests. Something more is required. A healing, perhaps.

“It is human action, it is human greed, it’s human sin, and it’s human stupidity that is making Mother Nature react,” said Shiva. “That’s the reading [of] all communities that have related to the earth and haven’t separated themselves.”

The psychological “disease” that convinced so many that humans are not a part of nature reached its ultimate in the fossil fuel age, she added. It’s a dizzying event that allows for the disingenuous distancing of industrial cause from environmental effect. As with fracking and earthquakes. Fracking and water contamination. Fracking and the destruction of our atmosphere.

Among those who didn’t separate, as Shiva describes it, are those whose cosmovision and cultural lifeways preceded the verdicts of today’s climate scientists by centuries, if not millenia — the world’s indigenous communities. Inspired by the defense of indigenous lands and lifeways against extractive industry, environmental law has witnessed the rise of an alternative paradigm to environmental regulation, and, indeed, to the land-as-property ethos that grounds the entire western legal tradition.

In Ecuador, where fracking was put on trial in January at the world’s first Rights of Nature Ethics Tribunal, the rights of nature have been enshrined in the national constitution since 2008. Bolivia passed the Law of Mother Earth in 2011, the world’s first such law recognizing nature as having rights equal to those of the human species.

Earth is the mother of all,” said Vice-President Alvaro García Linera at the time, matter-of-factly.

Here lives the memory of our species as a part of the earth, not Her dominant. Here is knowledge of reliance and relatedness and a courage to see the evidence of our illness. This force, too, has an endpoint: one committed to freezing the deep-sea drilling, the strip-mining and deep-earth rupturings. It would trade the extractive economy – rather than the living earth we ride through a void of space – for another future, another path. Sustainable energies and economies beckon.

The Latin@ vote represents a great hope in pushing local communities (and Washington, should Washington wish to remain relevant) toward cutting greenhouse emissions already making refugees in low-lying island states and promising to decimate agricultural lands throughout Mexico and Central America and create a state of “permanent drought” in the U.S. Southwest.

Urging forward the immune response is the example of increasingly networked indigenous communities taking heroic stands in the defense of the land — against neoliberal dam projects, multinational mining ventures, and, most recently (as with the promise of “epic opposition” to the Keystone XL pipeline by an alliance of North American Indian nations) tar sands pipelines and the expansion of fracking.

As starkly conflicting visions gather to contest the world that will be, it will be those who storm and occupy the crossroads themselves who will prevail. Intriguingly, the growing caravan of the politically discontented, indigenous resisters, climate activists, all who know and prize our place on the land are embracing radical new visions of the rights of nature (and our obligations to all the earth’s families), promising to “idle no more.


This article appears in the current issue of La Voz (pdf), the monthly magazine produced by the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center. For more information about the environmental health dangers of the current fracking boom, see “Fracking Boom Spews Toxic Emissions On Texas Residents,” and 8-month investigation by InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, and the Weather Channel.